Thoreau’s View of the Railroad

Thoreau’s attitude toward the railroad was foremost one of ambivalence.

By Michael Sconzo
Intern, Science, Technology, and Business Division
University of Virginia

What’s The Railroad To Me?

What’s the railroad to me?
I never go to see
Where it ends.
It fills a few hollows,
And makes banks for the swallows,
It sets the sand a-blowing,
And the blackberries a-growing
Walden, H. Thoreau

Henry Thoreau (1817-1862) was a transcendentalist writer, poet, and naturalist who felt that progress exists in relation to the individual as the personal attainment of peace and serenity. He thought that it was in the best interest of individuals to live a life that was true to themselves, and he embodied this ideal by living his life as a symbol for the ideals he advocated. While in his late twenties, he spent two years in the woods of Concord, Massachusetts, living alone in a small cottage near Walden Pond.  He sought, in his own words, to live “deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” (1) He detailed his experiences in Walden, or Life in the Woods, which he published in 1854.

Title page of Henry D. Thoreau, Walden; or life in the woods, 1854, showing Thoreau’s hut at Walden Pond, Massachusetts / Library of Congress

What was the impact of the railroads on Thoreau? The first engine and train in America, the DeWitt Clinton, was introduced in 1831, when Henry Thoreau was a mere 14-15 years old.  By the time he withdrew to the simple life at Walden Pond, the railroad had been around for a decade. The Fitchburg Line and its trains, which Thoreau could hear from his home, had only been proposed in 1842, and were built by Irish laborers. In 1843, an estimated thousand Irish laborers were at work on the Fitchburg Line, which extended the rail line through Concord.

Brief statement of facts in relation to the proposed rail-road from Boston to Fitchburg. 1842 / Library of Congress

According to newspapers from June 1844, the train made its first stop in Concord that month, breaking the “repose of that quiet, venerable town” and passing “by the clear waters of Walden Pond …”  According to Michael Harding in The Days of Henry Thoreau, “Fitchburg Railroad steamed regularly past the opposite end of the pond.” (2)

The Locomotive on Railroads’ Battlefield. An Address before Princeton University in the Cyrus Fogg Brackett Lectureship in Applied Engineering and Technology delivered on April 14, 1931. In [Railroad pamphlets. Part 2]. 1842-1945. (17 items) CLC Ft Meade Spec Mat

Although Thoreau was not diametrically opposed to the railroad, he lived before the great growth of the railroads and the large environmental impacts.  Still, he criticized it for being a false notion of progress that depleted the body and mind of the individual. The railroad was seen as an enormous boon and was soon being used to send parcels as well as people.  Thoreau complained that he could walk to nearby Fitchburg faster than riding the train and enjoy it more, too. He argued that when one walks by foot they have the freedom to forge their own journey, whereas when one rides the railroad they are subject to the predetermined path of the rails. This scene from American Autumns by J.F. Cropsey shows how he might have seen the railroad from a distance and then turned his back on it to enjoy the natural beauty instead.

American Autumn, Starucca Valley, Erie R. Road / J.F. Cropsey, 1865. Library of Congress

Despite his proclivity to prefer communion with nature rather than increasingly industrialized civilization, Thoreau’s attitude toward the railroad was foremost one of ambivalence, though he still concerns himself with how the railroad relates to him.  In this manner, Thoreau may have hoped for the coexistence of the railroad with nature, but he knew better than to assume that they might exist in total harmony. Instead, he was pessimistic of the actual effects of its excess. In his words, “…it seems as if the earth had got a race now worthy to inhabit it. If all were as it seems and men made the elements their servants for noble ends!” (3) Thoreau feared that the railroads might coax the individual into denying their individuality such that they might spend their lives living for something that wasn’t worth living for. He argued that if one were to really live, they ought to do what is required of them by their own nature, rather than that of anyone else.

American railroad scene: lightning express trains leaving the junction. Currier & Ives, 1874. Library of Congress


  1. Thoreau, Henry D. (1976) Walden or, Life in the Woods (pp. 109). Franklin Center, PA: Franklin Library.
  2. Harding, Walter Roy.  The days of Henry Thoreau: a biography (pp. 498). Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press, 1982.
  3. Thoreau, Henry D. (1976) Walden or, Life in the Woods (pp. 141). Franklin Center, PA: Franklin Library.

Originally published by the United States Library of Congress, 08.09.2019, to the public domain.